State of the Franchise: Dallas Cowboys

Set the Browns aside, and the NFL team that has captured the most media attention this offseason has been, as usual, my Dallas Cowboys. 2019 figures to be a pivotal season for the Boys, with arguably the most talented team since the dynasty of the 1990s, but success is far from guaranteed. Already, star running back Ezekiel Elliott is holding out of training camp, and new additions like offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have yet to prove they have what it takes for the NFL. As a resident Cowboys expert, I feel it is my duty to best answer the crucial questions surrounding Dallas and give my take on the direction of the franchise.

Can the Cowboys compete for a Super Bowl this season?

Yes. The final four teams remaining from last year’s NFC playoffs, the Saints, Rams, Eagles and Cowboys, come into the year as the front-runners to represent the conference in this year’s Super Bowl. While the Cowboys have historically been inconsistent, the Cowboys boast one of the strongest and most balanced rosters in the league, with no major losses from last year’s NFC East champion squad. 

Should the Cowboys pay Dak Prescott franchise quarterback money?

Yes. One of the factors that has enabled the Cowboys to post winning records in each of the past three seasons is their discovery of quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Prescott has performed admirably, but his miniscule annual salary may have been even more valuable to the team’s front office. But with one year left on his deal and Prescott engaging the Cowboys in extension negotiations, the days of Dallas coming off with a major financial bargain may be over. Prescott is seen around the league as a viable starting quarterback, though talent at the offensive line and running back positions have certainly helped and beg the question of whether it is worth it for the Cowboys to pay big money to a quarterback who has led a run-heavy offense. 

The answer is yes, because Prescott best positions the Cowboys to contend for championships now and for the foreseeable future. Prescott has led the Cowboys to winning records in each of his three seasons, including two trips to the divisional round of the playoffs. He is dangerous as a runner but also smart, and his arm has shown up in big games against top NFC opponents. Plus, he has room for growth in his fourth season, and the promotion of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, a former Cowboy quarterback himself, could give Prescott the play-calling boost he needs to strike fear into opponents. Playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys is quite the stage, and Prescott has had nary a misstep. Is he on the level of up-and-coming young quarterbacks such as Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, and Patrick Mahomes? No, but considering all that Prescott brings to the table on and off the field, as well as the dearth of alternatives, the Cowboys should feel comfortable rewarding their quarterback with a contract in the $30 million range.

Should the Cowboys reward Zeke Elliott with a long-term deal?

No. Ezekiel Elliott has been the most exciting running back in the NFL, leading the league twice in rushing yards, and is the key cog in the Cowboys’ offense. But the fourth overall pick in 2016 has chosen to hold out from training camp, with two years still left on his rookie contract. Dallas needs Elliott on the field to reach the Super Bowl this season – their lack of alternatives at the moment dictates that – but handing Elliott a massive contract is not in the Cowboys’ long-term interest.

There is no disputing Elliott’s production to the Cowboys the past three years. But there are plenty of question marks that should make the Dallas front office think twice. Elliott has had a history of legal troubles, ranging from the domestic violence accusation that derailed the Cowboys’ 2017 season to recent disputes with law enforcement. In the way that Prescott has been a model Cowboys’ quarterback with his off-the-field conduct, Elliott has been exactly the opposite. Twice I have pondered buying an Ezekiel Elliott jersey, but upon remembering the past allegations and acknowledging the seemingly certain probability he gets in trouble again, I decided against it. Asking for a contract extension with two more years (and well-paid ones, too) left on his deal goes along with the trend.

There’s also the question of his value to the team moving forward. Dallas’s highly touted and highly paid offensive line helped DeMarco Murray win an Offensive Player of the Year and Darren McFadden rush for 1,000 yards, and neither of those guys are remotely Canton-worthy. Elliott wouldn’t be replaceable this season, but his replacement could come as soon as next year’s draft under a much more team-friendly contract. The Cowboys also have a ton of young players like Prescott on rookie deals that they have to pay, leaving Elliott as less of a priority. Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Byron Jones, and tackle La’el Collins are impending free agents, and all except for Collins are probably more important to lock up than Elliott. Elliott’s longevity with his status as a workhorse back is in question, as the lifespan of a star running back has been shrinking, and running backs have been devalued as a whole in today’s NFL. 

Looking at Jerry Jones’s track record, he loves players that make his team relevant, and his star running back has certainly kept his team in the highlights the past three seasons and the national discussion this past week. It seems like a Cowboys thing to do to sign him to the deal. But while I love Ezekiel Elliott’s touchdown celebrations as much as the next Cowboys fan, his off-the-field antics and devaluation means he should not be the priority for the Dallas front office, whether that means a trade or a search for a replacement.

If so many players are in their contract year, then is the Cowboys’ window closing? 

No. The Cowboys have an abundance of riches in terms of young talent and that bodes well for the future. If Prescott can take another step in his development, the team will have the most precious commodity in NFL football – a franchise quarterback. And while some of the key players on this year’s team are bound to leave, the Cowboys have been as strong at drafting players as any team in the league. Of their last 10 first round draft picks, eight have made the Pro Bowl, and that’s not counting the first round pick dealt to land Oakland receiver Amari Cooper in a midseason trade last season. With the front office getting more say in personnel decisions and owner/general manager Jerry Jones deferring more often, Dallas’s success in April could be here to stay and could keep this team in contention. Plus, this is a team that has had two losing seasons in the past 12 years – they stay in playoff contention year in and year out.

How did this team improve from one that got handled by the Rams in last year’s playoffs?

There were no blockbuster trades or free agency signings for the Cowboys this year, but their team improved in several tangible ways. As stated earlier, the hiring of Kellen Moore could add innovation and the element of surprise into the Cowboys’ offensive attack, elements that have been lacking in recent seasons. Prescott’s job will also be easier with the return of All Pro center Travis Frederick, who missed last season due to Guillain-Barre syndrome, and the unretirement of the ageless tight end Jason Witten. Those moves, along with the continued development of the team’s young stars, bodes well for a playoff run in 2019.

How much job security does head coach Jason Garrett enjoy?

With nine seasons under his belt, Jason Garrett is one of the longest tenured coaches in the NFL and holds the mark for most seasons as the Cowboys’ head coach under Jerry Jones. But he definitely will feel the pressure not only to make the playoffs, but make a meaningful run in 2019. Jones has had remarkable patience with Garrett, but with such a talented roster and an NFC Championship berth still outside his reach, Garrett’s seat is getting hotter and hotter. Garrett has a couple things going for him, namely a new offensive coordinator and the admirable ability to deal with Jones while keeping control of the locker room, but he doesn’t have much margin for error in the coming months. I’m still under the impression that Jones is aiming for current Saints coach Sean Payton as the next face of the Cowboys, so Garrett needs to prove he’s the man and dispel those rumblings as well.

What are the biggest games on the Cowboys’ schedule?

Given their status as the reigning NFC East champs, the Cowboys will have a tough in-conference draw that includes games in New Orleans and against the Rams, arguably the two best teams in the league last year. Battles against the rugged NFC North teams could also pose a problem, while a rare trip to New England could put the Cowboys in underdog position. The toughest stretch of the season comes at the end, with games at Chicago, versus the Los Angeles Rams, and at division rival Philadelphia on the slate for Weeks 14 to 16. If the Cowboys don’t have their playoff spot on lock entering those weeks, those battles will make or break their playoff hopes. Aside from those prime contests, Dallas benefits from playing two games apiece against the rebuilding Giants and Redskins and facing the woeful AFC East trio of Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets. 

What will be the determining factor in the outcome of the Cowboys’ season?

The Dallas Cowboys’ success will depend on a wide array of factors, from offensive play calling to health to primetime performance. But the most important individual factor has to be the play of quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys have a championship-caliber defense, one of the league’s best offensive lines and three All Pro weapons at Prescott’s disposal. The question is whether Prescott can make the most of the opportunity and demonstrate consistency and accuracy that was lacking at times the past couple years. He has had a strong track record in the postseason in bouts against Green Bay, Seattle and the Rams, but his development will determine whether the Cowboys will be simply good or whether they will truly be great and reach their potential. For Dak, it’s prove-it time. He would want it no other way.

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